During his rugby-playing days, Steve Phillips rose to captain of Amman United, a club in the lower divisions of the Welsh league. Now, at 43, he finds himself back in rugby, this time at the very top of the sport in Wales. Of course, as finance director of the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), the game’s governing body, he tackles problems using financial acumen instead of brute strength.
After qualifying as an accountant at KPMG, Phillips spent ten years at UK regional airport operator TBI before moving to the WRU earlier this year. His new job is a labour of love, as the financial incentives at the WRU can’t compete with what was available at TBI, which was taken over by a Spanish consortium in a 2004 deal worth £750m (€1 billion at the time). “Welsh rugby runs through his veins,” explained WRU chief Roger Lewis when announcing Phillips’ appointment.
Around three-quarters of the WRU’s revenue come from international rugby matches at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, a wholly owned subsidiary. After paying costs, the bulk of any surplus goes into the development of Welsh rugby, a fundamental difference in the business model from that of a listed company, Phillips notes. In the year to May, the WRU invested £18.8m in all levels of Welsh rugby, from the amateur to the professional ranks, up from £15.7m in 2006.
Another interesting feature of the job is that the WRU’s finances are almost entirely independent from the standing of the national team. Although ticket sales improve when Wales is winning, such is the support for the sport that matches are always near capacity regardless of how well the team plays, Phillips says. Thus, despite the country’s poor performance at the World Cup in September — missing out on the knockout stages after a shock defeat to Fiji — the fact that four of the group-stage matches were held in Cardiff will bolster the WRU’s coffers in its current fiscal year. What’s more, “With the announcement of [Warren Gatland as the] new coach, everybody is excited in Wales again,” Phillips adds.
The finance chief is so enthusiastic that he finds it difficult to stay on the sidelines. “I was reluctant to let it go,” says Phillips, who played the punishing centre position. “I packed it in when I was 36 and my sell-by date was probably about 32.”
Towards the end of his days at Amman United, Phillips befriended future star winger Shane Williams, then a promising rookie. As Williams jokes, “Steve was a decrepit old…I was going to say has-been but I don’t think he ever was much on the field.” It’s for the best, then, that the rucks Phillips finds himself in these days are just metaphorical.